FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHOJA, Afghanistan — In a dark, cold mud hut, Staff Sgt. Keith Brown curved his body around the phone at 6 a.m. on Friday as he spoke to his wife, Arlyn, who is back in Fairbanks.
“Baby, did you get the card I sent? It said ‘Merry Christmas. I love you.’”
He had shopped online and he wanted to know if she’d received the presents he’d sent — “sparkly, expensive diamond earrings.”
Brown, 31, from Raleigh, Miss., calls home frequently. It’s his third deployment but is his first Christmas away from his wife and infant son Keith, who was born in October. His wife is upset that she didn’t send him any presents.
“You got me my gift in the house with you — my son. And you got me pictures of you that’s coming,” he told her. He had no photographs and he was waiting for them to arrive with a soldier returning from leave.
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” Brown said of Christmas in Kandahar Province. “It’s sweet because I’m out here doing something great for my country. It’s bitter because I’m going to being missing my son’s first Christmas and my wife. This is our first Christmas as a family.”
As soon as he left the tent, he ran into the soldier who had brought the photographs of his children. He can’t stop smiling.
It’s Christmastime in Afghanistan for the soldiers of the Fairbanks-based 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infanty Division.
A home away
Outside the Morale Welfare Recreation mud hut, Forward Operating Base Shoja, like Afghanistan, is in transition. The air is filled with a fine silt the soldiers call “moon dust” and with the sounds of non-stop construction: the relentless rattle of generators, the thwack-thwack of staple guns, the groan and rumble of big machinery.
One pressing construction project is the new dining facility. The soldiers have been eating in a small tent with somber lighting, and Lt. Col. Brian Payne, commander of the Stryker Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, has pushed for the new facility to be ready to serve Christmas dinner. The All Electric Kitchen with Wolf grills, a Vulcan kettle and two tilt grills arrived just five days before Christmas. With bigger serving and dining areas, the dining facility — the DFAC — will accommodate the base’s growing population as the battalion closes its smaller outposts and consolidates its soldiers at Shoja.
“We have a bunch of Army fellows doing our best to build stuff. We’re not carpenters,” said Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Blalock, who’s overseeing the time-crunched project. “Will it be perfect by Christmas? Probably not. But we will be able to eat it in.”
Spc. Tabitha McKenzie, 26, from Emporium, Pa., is a cook on her first deployment. A wife and mother of a son, Cameron, 5, she’ll be busy cooking Christmas dinner for 500 soldiers, though she plans to take a moment for her family.
“My husband worked out a time so that I can get on the web cam and watch them open presents.”
Her son understands she has to be away this Christmas: “Mom’s fighting the bad guys.” “More like cooking for the guys who are fighting the bad guys,” McKenzie said.
Inside the Tactical Operating Center, Maj. Jason Dye, 33, from Tacoma, Wash., decorated his office door with photos of his two children, Annika, 4, and Ian, 5, and paper ornaments from Ian’s kindergarten classmates. His wife, Tia, sent 18 boxes for Christmas.
“Three were for me. The rest were for everybody else,” he said. “There’s jerky, crackers, cookies — some homemade — dried fruit, trail mix, decorations, Christmas lights, garlands.”
Dye didn’t think the decorations would be a hit.
“These are soldiers. They’re not going to do the craft thing,” he said. “Some of the first things to be taken were the garlands and lights.”
Soldiers draped shiny red and golden garland around desks and computer screens. A tiny Charlie Brown Christmas tree was adorned with ornaments and an American flag.
It’s Dye’s third deployment and he said the hardest thing is missing a year with his kids.
“For us, a year goes by pretty quick. For a kid, that’s long,” he said. “I wasn’t there when he got to read his first book all by himself.”
He’ll miss their Christmas tradition this year, too.
“The night before Christmas, the one gift they open is their Christmas pajamas so they sleep in their Christmas pajamas.”
Santa makes the rounds
Katie Payne, wife of the battalion commander, sent her husband a Santa suit. On Dec. 24, he donned the bright red outfit with a wide, shiny plastic black belt and fake white beard and hair. He picked up his rifle and headed to his Stryker vehicle to make a battlefield circulation to visit all his troops. Along the way, he shook hands with soldiers as they passed, shouted “Merry Christmas” and posed for photographs.
At the Stryker, he put on his body armor. He had to abandon his Santa hat when it didn’t fit over his helmet. First stop: Khenjakak, a former Taliban stronghold, now home to the 1-5’s Charlie Company.
Payne walked around the camp poking his head in tents and wishing the soldiers “Merry Christmas.”
Stf. Sgt. Kirk Goff, 25, from Swansea, S.C., sat on Santa’s lap and asked for an M-4 rifle. Santa couldn’t honor that one. At the gym, Sgt. Robert Taylor, 30, from Tampa, Fla., made a wish Payne could grant: He asked for a letter of endorsement for Officer Candidate School.
Payne stayed well past sunset talking with the soldiers of Charlie Company. His Stryker convoy returned to Shoja under a dark desert sky full of bright stars.
Christmas morning, Payne was back on his Santa rounds by 8:45 a.m. He intended to visit each of the strongpoints under his command. As the convoy drove through arid lands, the vehicles passed young girls in dresses with sequins that sparkled in the sun, boys on bicycles and men in trucks or doubled up on motorcycles. With his head sticking out of the front hatch of the Stryker, Payne waved a white-gloved hand at the children while his gunners kept a sharp eye on the men and their passing motor vehicles.
He had learned that morning that he wouldn’t be able to visit Alpha Company.
“Those guys are at the end of the world. They’re already so isolated,” Payne said. “The road hasn’t been cleared. We don’t have a mine roller. I’m torn. I really want to go down there.”
Instead, he headed to Folad.
Capt. Michael Tiongo, 29, from Honolulu, Hawaii, greeted Payne with a gold package of Kona coffee. It is Tiongo’s second deployment in Afghanistan and his second Christmas away from his wife, Rebecca, and three children, Gabriel, 4, Teagan, 2, and Noelle, one month old.
He was home for Noelle’s November birth and they celebrated Christmas at Thanksgiving, making cookies and ornaments and trimming the tree. Tiongo got a Hallmark recordable book and taped his voice reading “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
“I’ll read it to them tonight,” he said. He looked at his watch: 7 a.m. Christmas day in Khenjakak is 8 p.m. Christmas Eve in Honolulu. “I’m probably reading it right now.”
Santa and his convoy headed next to Sperwan Ghar to visit the soldiers in Bravo Company. He played ping-pong and posed for more photographs, including a portrait with soldiers from 3rd Platoon. They sported blinking red Rudolph noses and Santa hats sent to them by Ruth Stubbs, mother of Pfc. Eric LeMaster, 20, from Alexandria, Ky.
Payne spent four hours at Sperwan Ghar. His TAC team soldiers lounged in the shade of the eight-wheeled Stryker. Some ate Meals Ready to Eat, joking and playing cards; others tossed a football or listened to music. When Payne prepared to leave, Pfc. Dylan McDaniel, 20, from Natural Bridge, Va., approached and asked if he could have his picture taken with him.
On Sept. 14, McDaniel was on patrol when a roadside bomb exploded, wounding him and several of his fellow 3rd Platoon soldiers. He spent three months recovering in Kandahar and had only returned to his unit on Dec. 18.
“It’s awesome. I’m happy to be back. My job’s here,” McDaniel said. “They wanted to send me home. I ain’t going home. I wanted to finish it out with my boys.”
“Hooah,” Payne said. “I’m proud of you.” After the photograph, he took McDaniel aside and spoke with him for a few minutes before climbing back into his Stryker and heading back to base.
Global good night
Payne’s Santa convoy returned to Shoja at 4:15 p.m., with 15 minutes to spare before the grand opening of the new dining facility and the celebration of a Christmas feast.
In the sunset light, soldiers lined 40 deep to enter the dining hall for Christmas dinner. The officers took turns serving lobster tail, ham, turkey, sweet potatoes and collard greens to the hundreds of soldiers who smiled as they watched the food pile up on their cardboard trays. Still in his Santa suit, Payne helped serve thick slices of the steamship beef.
Late in the evening and back in uniform, Payne passed through the TOC one last time and played a few hands of cards with the soldiers gathered around the map table.
And in the cold mud hut late into the night, soldiers huddled over phones and tapped on computer keyboards, reaching around the globe to wish their loved ones a Merry Christmas.
Cheryl Hatch was a recent Snedden chair in the University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism department. She and photographer JR Ancheta, a UAF student, are embedded with a Stryker brigade unit in Afghanistan.